A year ago Don and Loretta Gibbs retired from UC Davis and headed off to Beijing to head up the University of California Education Abroad Program at Peking University. The assignment, while enjoyable, has turned out to be one of long hours with little free time for travel and reading. But who can live without reading? I knew that Loretta was a big fan of Mark Salzman, the author of "Iron and Silk," "The Laughing Sutra," "The Soloist," and "Lost in Place."
And Don said he brought to China three large chests of unfinished research material in the hopes that he would find time to work on it. He also brought along a full set of works by Charles Dickens.
"I have long wanted to re-read Dickens in my adulthood, partly to see if I still liked his long sentences as much as I used to, and partly because I wanted to get rid of the set where it took up so much room on my shelves. But didn't dare do until I had got all my money's worth out of it from a second reading.
"I thought the long winter nights in Beijing would be perfect for Dickens. He is, after all, read here in China as if his descriptions of child labor, the starving masses and abused workers were contemporary accounts of what capitalists are doing to society on the eve of their self-destruction.
"I also brought Dave Barry (his latest is "Dave Barry's Complete Guide to Guys," now out in paperback - and he'll be speaking at UCD early in 1997 as part of the UC Davis Presents speaker series) and a backlog of reading in my field.
"I read two volumes of Dickens during trans-Pacific flights, haven't had time to touch the Barry," said Gibbs. "The job demands 12 hours on a good day and 20 on bad ones," he added. The number of UC students studying in Beijing has grown from 40 last year to 60 this year.
But Gibbs says there is one book that stays permanently in his brief case, ready to be picked up and read at a moment's notice. It is the paperback, "Collecting Himself, James Thurber on Writing and Writers, Humor and Himself," edited by Michael J. Rosen.
"I read this in a taxicab stuck in traffic--one can't read when the car is moving because the roads are too rough. I read it waiting in line in government bureaucracies, I read it while waiting for people who don't arrive on time, but who will surely arrive the minute I get involved in some work. I read it while waiting for my e-mail carrier to put me on line -- that can take up to half an hour or more. This book is a pure delight. All the pieces are short. They are so funny I burst out laughing at all kinds of inopportune times. I can see the cab driver looking sideways at me. I can pick it up, open it at random and in a few minutes finish a little piece; I've read some two and three times.
"It's not much reading for a year and two months here, but no book has given me more pleasure," he added.
Art and Text
by James Thurber
Harper and Row Publishers
Copyright © 1944
essay about James Thurber
can be found in
"Something about Thurber
makes him perfect for China"
the August 25, 1996,
PRINTED MATTER column.